Thursday, October 12, 2006

Panama Al Brown: Friend of Wales

Whatever happened to Panama Al Brown's silver-plated miner's lamp? I often wonder...

For the uninitiated Panama Al Brown is a boxing legend, the first ever Latin American World Champion. The "elongated Panamanian" (he stood 5'11" but weighed a mere 126 lbs) reigned as Bantamweight World Champion from 1929-1935. He was a cultured fellow and like many other black icons of the era made his home in racially-tolerant Paris. For a short spell he was even managed by Jean Cocteau.

In 1931 Wales was the only country in the British Isles that didn't operate an official boxing colour bar. This prompted Panama Al to cross the Channel to fight our very own Ginger Jones of Ammanford. The scrap would take place at Mountain Ash.

To everyone's astonishment Panama Al Brown arrived in Cardiff in September 1931 and was put up at Barry's Hotel on St Mary Street. So iconic was the hispanic fighter he was met by a deputation of black men and women from Butetown (Tiger Bay) who welcomed him to Wales. Brown set up his training camp at the Singleton Club in Cardiff.

The Panamanian was popular with the Welsh public who were amazed such a pugilistic legend had actually come to Wales. It also helped that he was a nice fella. Taking time out from training he handed out championship certificates in Tonypandy; visited sick children at Cardiff Royal Infirmary; and attended a boxing tournament at Ammanford.

The fight itself at The Pavilion, Mountain Ash, proved to be a one-sided affair with Brown predictably dispatching the plucky Welshman with a left-hook to the solar-plexus in round 9. However, before the fight itself the crowd had sung him the Welsh national anthem, Swanee River and For he's a Jolly Good Fellow. Brown was apparently so moved by the gesture he agreed to box an exhibition bout in Cardiff for free a few days later.

He honoured this promise at the Drill Hall, Cardiff, where he sparred with 3 different boxers in front of 2,000 people. £200 was raised for the Caerphilly Catholic building fund. He stayed a few more nights in Wales attending various dinners in his honour.

At one such dinner in Porth he was given a silver-plated miner's lamp which he declared to be better than any purse he had ever been paid. "I did not come here for this," he said, " but when I have given up boxing for good I shall be proud to think that a nation that is not my own should have given it me for such a slight service as I have been able to render. I sincerely hope that the day is not far distant when I can again do something to show you how much I appreciate the hospitality of the people of Wales."

Before he left he promised to come back the following year to fight the best featherweight in Europe for free. In 1932 he duly returned to Cardiff where he fought and beat Italian champion Luigi Quadrini at Ninian Park. 4,000 punters watched the fight in the dismal rain with all proceeds going to charity.

So what became of this pugilistic friend of Wales? It's a sad story really. After retiring from the ring Alfonso Teofilo Brown like many other boxers struggled to find an alternative career. For a while he fronted an orchestra on the French Riviera before eventually moving to the United States. While in America he became a cocaine addict and a down and out. He was deported to Panama for a year for cocaine use before returning once again to America. In 1951 he died in New York City of tuberculosis. Although initially buried in NY his body was later disinterred and reburied at the Amador Guerrero Cemetery in Panama City, Panama.

Sadly, as far as I'm aware, the only biography of the great man in existence is Panama Al Brown: 1902-1951 by the Spanish artist Eduardo Arroyo which has yet to be translated into English (or Welsh).